Fostering Empathy in Children

“Empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” – Roger Ebert

It’s no secret that empathy plays an integral role in social and emotional learning. It’s one of the most complex skills to build because it takes ongoing modeling and intentional attention. At Seven Arrows, we begin early with concrete modeling; we want students to acquire, and more importantly, apply attitudes and skills to understand and manage emotions, feel and show empathy for others, and establish and maintain positive relationships with their peers.

Dr. Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of a new book, The Empathy Effect, explores the neuroscience behind empathy and offers her thoughts and observations on how to nurture and implement it.

From The New York Times article, “How to Foster Empathy in Children” by Jane E. Brody:

“Research by Dr. Riess and her collaborators has shown that we are each born with a given number of neurons that participate in an empathetic response. But whether this potential to care appropriately for one’s fellow beings is realized or undermined is largely molded by early life experiences, starting at birth and continuing throughout childhood.

“How, then, can a healthy degree of empathy be instilled in a child? ‘Empathy is a mutable trait, it can be taught,’ Dr. Riess told me. ‘We’re all born with a certain endowment, but it can be dramatically up-regulated or down-regulated depending upon environmental factors,’ especially, she said, by the examples set by a child’s caregivers.”

Brody continues:

“Dr. Riess has vivid memories of how her parents demonstrated empathy, by bringing turkeys before Thanksgiving to the homes of people who had almost nothing. ’Kids tend to focus on what they don’t have — this exposes them to people who have so much less and gives them the gift of being a giver.’”


“Equally important is for parents to demonstrate empathy with their own children by acknowledging their concerns and feelings and recognizing their need for security. For example, she said, ‘When a child is fearful of a dog, instead of saying “Don’t be afraid, he won’t bite you,” say “Are you scared of the dog? What scares you?” This validates the child’s fears rather than negating them.’

“At the same time, Dr. Riess said, parents should not overreact by being intolerant of ‘a single second of unhappiness in their child’s life’ lest such misguided empathy deprive the child of developing the grit, perseverance and resilience that is essential to a successful life.”

For more information about fostering empathy in children, read more from The New York Times.